Harriet Hall and I recently had the following conversation via email. I have found that the older I get, the less I am surprised by things, and I don’t know if this is a function of no longer believing in an intelligent universe, or a function of having seen it all already. Her viewpoint was predictable for the profession she is in, but I still thought her statement was irresponsibly reprehensible.
I have never actually tried to write to anyone that has published something with which I disagree. I believe I have written to the Op-Ed page a time or two; after all, discourse is part of our American life, and expressing opposing viewpoints gets our blood boiling when we forget to work out. Therefore, I rather surprised myself when I found the contact email for the author of an article I read: Harriet Hall. She touted herself as a doctor and a skeptic, and she stated in a review on a book with opposing viewpoints on aging that the authors believed ‘the myths about the dangers of aspartame’. I did a classic double take; more than twenty years ago when my mother was developing macular degeneration she did a lot of research on aspartame, which is what composes Nutrasweet and Equal. She had heard on the news that an optometrist advised one of his patients to stop drinking diet sodas after he started experiencing migraines and seizures. After my mother started her research, she found out that there were several groups suing Monsanto (heard of them recently?) and that groups such as a pilot’s association were recommending that their fellow pilots stop consuming aspartame.
I also investigated the websites she writes for, Skeptic.com and Quackwatch. I knew from just looking at their category headings what I would find, namely upholding of the status quo; they even had Rodale Press under the category to ‘beware’! Rodale Press publishes Prevention magazine which has the temerity to publish articles about healthy diets, exercise, and good nutrition. Gasp! Outrageous! Doctors don’t need that kind of subversive thinking from their patients!
At any rate, I wrote to Harriet Hall via email, she responded and the following is how the discourse proceeded:
Hello Dr. Hall;
I research and write articles of all types for my blog. I have been interested in health issues most of my life. Growing up, I had ileitis (so diagnosed, anyway) and was informed that I would either have to stay on medication all my life, or have a section of my intestines removed. I chose neither; instead, I set about educating myself in nutrition and diet and cured myself of the condition in about a year. At the same time, I cured myself of anemia. I’m a big believer in the power of information, and educating one’s self.
Thirty years later, I am writing articles about aging, also. I have a book called ‘The Aging Population’ in which you wrote an opposing viewpoint on longevity. While I believe heartily in alternative and complementary therapies, I believe very little in mainstream medicine; it encompasses a group of professionals more interested in lining their pockets and maintaining arrogant viewpoints. I wasn’t disappointed in my belief when I read your statement that the harm in consuming aspartame is a myth. This can only lead me to believe that you are in the pay of Monsanto. As far back as the late 1980′s optometrists, medical doctors, and pilot’s associations were warning against the dangers of aspartame; Monsanto has settled cases out of court, thus avoiding negative publicity. Studies were conducted back then about putting aspartame in a hot liquid, which is especially dangerous; it turns into a danger equal to what wood alcohol was during Prohibition. My mother, a consumer of Equal, developed macular degeneration. Her own doctor told her that may have been the cause.
I have nothing against opposing viewpoints; I just think irresponsible opposing viewpoints, especially from a ‘professional’ are unconscionable.
I am not in the pay of Monsanto. I am not in anyone’s pay. My husband and I live on our Air Force retirement pay and I write pro bono. I have never been paid a cent for anything I wrote except for four short columns I wrote for O, The Oprah magazine.
I formed my opinion that aspartame is safe after reviewing the scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals. You provide only anecdotes and faulty information from biased sources. I think it is viewpoints like yours that are not based on adequate scientific evidence that are irresponsible.
If you believe heartily in CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) treatments that have not been adequately tested or have shown negative test results and you don’t believe in mainstream treatments that have been adequately tested and proven to work, then it appears that you and I belong to different universes of discourse and there is no point in our trying to communicate. I would encourage you to read the Science-Based Medicine blog to learn about scientific thinking.
I had no idea I was in a book about longevity. Who is the author and what did my “opposing viewpoint on longevity” consist of?Harriet Hall, MD The SkepDoc
My reply to her reply:
I did not provide ‘anecdotes’ except the one that referred to my mother’s blindness and an agreement about aspartame from her ‘medical doctor’. I wouldn’t consider pilots in a pilot’s association to be biased sources, nor would I consider an optometrist’s opinion to be biased.
Pilots from major airlines, who generally were hired from military branches, recommended that their fellow pilots stop drinking anything with aspartame in it, because it has been shown to cause seizures, migraines, and could contribute to possible blindness. The study done on the changes in aspartame when ingested in a hot liquid was scientifcally based. You don’t even know the source of these studies, and you are calling them biased! Peer-reviewed journals are more likely to be biased, especially peers who have a vested interest in the status quo, in the same way executives at the FDA are biased because they were formally employed by food companies and pharamaceutical companies. After all, if we all were maintaining and being responsible for our own health, refusing to take their pills, where would doctors be?
And no, I have not heard of any mainstream medical treatments actually ‘working’. Pills generally just suppress symptoms, and doctors hope that their latest quackery works; if it doesn’t, then it must have been the disease that killed the patient. If it does, it must have been the doctor and the chosen treatment. Fuzzy logic and scientific thinking, indeed. If doctors can cite that they have ‘cured’ fifty percent (more or less) of their patients, then I guess all other practioners of medicine and health can claim the same, regardless of whether it is true or not.
And a last word- I Always want to know who is funding any studies on the possible harmful effects of any substance, regardless of how many reputable and scientific journals in which the results may be published. Sometimes that takes more than a surface look; much as a voter may want to know who this new ‘group’ is, who is for or against an issue. In other words, who’s funding it, Really?
I would pay more attention to what you are reading: I didn’t say you were in a book about longevity; I said it was in a book with opposing viewpoints about aging issues.
And her final reply:
‘You are wrong on several counts, but I have learned not to waste my time trying to argue with true believers. But I would like to know about the book.’
Me to her:
I told her I found the whole thing amusing and predictable, which I did, and came to understand further that you cannot change anyone’s opinion, even with the ‘facts’, and sometimes the facts are anecdotes. After all, what do researchers do but look at people, or animals, or whatnot, see an anomaly, and try through trial and error to find the common denominator? If I hear that for every one person who is ‘cured’ of cancer through chemotherapy, I also hear that ten more have died despite chemotherapy; I come to the conclusion that maybe chemotherapy isn’t working the way they say it is. If even pilots, a conservative lot on the whole, say that people shouldn’t be drinking diet soda because of some unfortunate effects it seems to be having on people, then I am going to pay some attention. You should, too.